Pemmican The Ultimate Travel Food

Pemmican: The Ultimate Travel Food

I first learned about Pemmican when I began ordering my high-quality meats from US Wellness Meats  I noticed it under their “Paleo” section and it sounded interesting. When a food sounds interesting I’m pretty much destined to not only try it, but usually to become very fond of it. I ordered a few of these Pemmican bars thinking they would make great portable snacks. I fell in love with them! The high-protein, high-fat content made them incredibly satiating and energy-sustaining. And they were not expensive! They quickly became a staple add-on to any order I placed. I never really gave much thought to the originations of Pemmican or why I had never heard of it before. 

Fast forward a few years, I’m at Paleo f(x) in Austin, TX, and I meet John and Geri Newell of Primal Woods.  I was zooming around on my knee scooter and for whatever reason, they struck up a conversation with me. Quite quickly, I discovered that we had a few interesting things in common (John and I are both US Navy veterans) and I took a liking to them. And apparently, them to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the beginning of a very influential and joy-filled friendship.

Back to the present summer of 2018. I’m traveling along in my new RV, Traveler, and sharing my journey and adventures with followers and friends on social media. John sees that I’m up in NY getting ready to make my way back to CA. He figures I will likely be passing very near his homestead in southern Michigan. John & Geri graciously extended an invitation to host me and I accepted. To say that this week was transformative in my life might be an understatement (time will show the true effects). 

Even though I had only met them once, we maintained a connection through social media and our blogs, it felt to me like we had been friends our entire lives. I quickly learned what they were up to on the homestead and their plans for the future. I excitedly cleared a lot of my schedule for the week to help participate in the projects that would be taking place during my stay. Everything from experimenting with making lye for soap-making to building a chicken coop! If you are at all interested in homesteading, I highly recommend you check out the Primal Woods blog.  They share a lot of interesting musings on homestead life in a very straightforward, no-nonsense style.

John, who had been recently experimenting and researching the “Carnivore Diet,” suggested we make pemmican while I was visiting. Oh heck yeah! I had never thought about making it myself since I don’t own a dehydrator, but I knew it was a fairly simple process. John started the meat dehydrating process right before I arrived and together, we made Pemmican! Through John’s research into the “Carnivore Diet” he had learned quite a bit about the history of Pemmican and shared this with me. It is truly the ultimate ancestral travel food! No wonder I fell in love with it!

We quickly decided that we wanted to share our exploration into Pemmican-making with our respective audiences. So we took diligent notes, made calculations, and here we are attempting to pass on these nuggets of wisdom and nourishment to you.

If you want to learn more about homesteading, check out the Primal Woods blog. To learn more about John & Geri and their health journey through Hashimoto’s and the Autoimmune Protocol Paleo Diet, check out their About Us page and the related blog posts linked. I am in total awe of John’s journey healing his Hashimoto’s with the Autoimmune Protocol diet (AIP). They both possess a beautiful ageless mindset and it is truly inspiring. Lastly, if you want to try Michigan’s best pure maple syrup, check out the Primal Woods shop!

Now, on to the Pemmican!

A Brief History of Pemmican

...In John's Words


History of North American Buffalo

At first glance, it would seem possible, certainly easier, to share a “brief” history of Pemmican without the larger context of the American Buffalo.  Since books have been written on the subject of Pemmican alone, it is certainly possible, but I think perhaps a less valuable undertaking than to put Pemmican inside the bigger story.  And so…
In the beginning…
The buffalo came to North America from Siberia via the Bering Land Bridge, or Beringia, during the Wisconsinan Glaciation, an “ice age” if you will, between 11,000 and 75,000 years ago, peaking in its intensity about 20,000 years ago.  “Bridge” seems to be a bit of a misnomer, as north-to-south the width of the bridge between North American and Siberia measured 1,000 miles!  And since we now live in the Great Lakes region, it is of particular interest to note that this area was under 1.5 miles of ice; the weight of which actually caused the earth’s crust to “sink” into the mantle a distance of about one half mile.  The earth’s surface is still in the process of rebounding from this event.  There were something like seventeen “ice ages” during the Pleistocene epoch, and the first bison migration seems to have taken place during the second-to-last, some 140,000 years ago.(1,2)
As a side note: The power of glaciers is unimaginable.  During this period the Glacial Lakes Duluth, Chicago, and Lundy were formed; we now know of these as Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.(3) So much of the earth’s water was tied up in the glaciation, that sea levels dropped significantly; exposing lands such as Beringia, or the Bering Land Bridge.
Estimates of the number of buffalo ranging across the North American plains prior to the arrival of Europeans, start at 30,000,000 and go as high as 60,000,000; my take is that it is towards the lower end.  According to Steven Rinella in American Buffalo, the buffalo “was perhaps the most numerous large mammal to ever exist on the face of the earth.”  That’s saying something.  From that zenith, humans pushed the American Buffalo to near extinction.
Indians and the Buffalo
It seems to me that it’s safe to say, the Indians were living in equilibrium with the Buffalo, and likely would have indefinitely had Europeans not arrived on scene.  Make no mistake, the Indians killed a lot of buffalo, and not every buffalo was completely utilized nose-to-tail; you only need so much of each part of the animal, and to subsist you need more of some parts than others.  But as in nature in general, reproduction creates a surplus to that necessary for survival of the species, whether we are talking about grains of wheat, nuts falling from a tree, fish and their eggs, or the offspring of mammals.  There can be and under normal circumstances is a balance in nature, between supply and demand.  Also, the Indians relied on the Buffalo for everything, and the word “everything” is not much of a stretch.  Food, clothing, and shelter were just the beginning of what the Indians created from the buffalo they killed, so they had a vested interest in ensuring the survival of the species.
The “Ecological Extinction” of the Buffalo
From this point in the story on, “technology” had a lot to do with the demise of the bison.  The first piece of tech that worked against the bison was the human mind, and that mind gave rise to all of the other technologies. Of course early tech, like Clovis and Folsom points allowed groups of humans to take down large animals, including the bison, but not on a large scale.  That came later.
Buffalo Jumps
Rinella argues that the buffalo jump might have signaled the beginning of the end; it enabled the “wholesale slaughter of complete buffalo herds.”  This was an invention of the Indians, and make no mistake, it was no simple matter to get a herd of buffalo to “jump” to their deaths.  Rinella discusses buffalo jumps in detail, but I’ll leave it at this; finding naturally occurring landscape suitable as a “jump” was not a no-brainer. Not to mention the issue of getting the herd to approach the jump at a dead run.  The surplus of buffalo killed, those beyond the need to subsist, allowed for trade between tribes within the bison range, and without.

Horses and their domestication, were introduced to the “new world” by Cortez; the horse arrived in Mexico in 1519 and was in the hands of the Pueblo Indians by 1700.  Before the horse, hunting of buffalo had been seasonal, in summer, when the buffalo massed at the major rivers.  After the horse, tribes became fully nomadic, leaving behind their horticultural ways, able to carry everything they owned with them, following the buffalo year-round.  Of course the horse also enabled movement for other purposes, like making war with the neighbors.

Railroads split the bison north and south and as time went on, into ever smaller subdivisions.  The rails brought hunters and guns, and took trade goods including buffalo hides, tongues and bones to faraway markets.  In the end it was the market for hides that took down the American Buffalo; tongues came easily as part of a package deal of sorts, and bones were an afterthought.  Meat in ungodly quantities was left on the plains to rot.
After the not-so Civil War ended, it wasn’t long before the American Buffalo met its end, for all practical purposes.  Ten or twelve years of hide trade was all it took; by 1880 is was pretty much over.  It didn’t take long before a conservation movement was mounted in an attempt to preserve what was left, this in the early 20th century.  Today there are about half a million American Bison; 96% of which are “privately owned livestock,” according to Rinella.  And of that, “Today, only three herds of government-owned buffalo – those at Yellowstone and Wind Cave national parks and a state-owned herd in Utah, are know to be genetically pure.”(1)
What Happened?
This story-line brings to mind a quote from “The Matrix;” Agent Smith speaking to Morpheus, “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realised that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet, you are a plague, and we…are the cure.”(4)
Unfortunately that has been all too true since the advent of “civilization.”  I suppose we can’t turn back the clock…but time travel…I wonder when I’d go back to, as the future state does not hold much allure for me. Hmmmm.

History of Pemmican

According to the wiki Pemmican entry, “Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food. Historically, it was an important part of Native American cuisine in certain parts of North America, and is still prepared today. The word comes from the Cree word pimîhkân, which itself is derived from the word pimî, “fat, grease”. The Lakota (or Sioux) word is wasna, with the wa meaning “anything” and the sna meaning “ground up”. It was invented by the native peoples of North America.
Pemmican was widely adopted as a high-energy food by Europeans involved in the fur trade and later by Arctic and Antarctic explorers, such as Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen.”
There seems to be some argument as to which tribe is responsible for the “invention” of pemmican, but it’s probably safe to say that it was plains Indians of the far north of the current United States (Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana) and the southern provinces of current day Canada.  Since the origin of the word is Cree, I’ll give the nod to the Cree for the creation of pemmican, although the Métis are oft mentioned. 
Traditionally it was used by Indians as both a travel and survival food, and it became a key advantage of the North West Company in their competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company for dominance of the fur trade.  To say that pemmican was an important commodity, is probably a significant understatement.  There was actually a bloody “seven-year feud of 1814-1821 between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company,” known as the Pemmican War.
In traditional pemmican, only lean muscle meat and fat were ingredients.  The lean meat was dried, either by the sun or over open fires.  The dried meat was then pulverized between two rocks, akin to a mortar and pestle, atop a hide, fur side down, to catch the “beat meat.”
A bag would have been made, about the size of a pillow case, typically from bison hide, fur-side out.  A combination of “beat meat” and melted tallow would be mixed in the bag, until the meat (shreds, granules, particles) was fully encapsulated in tallow.  The bag would then be sewn shut, and melted tallow dripped along the seams to waterproof the bag.  By English speakers the bag was called a “piece,” and by the French a “taureau” (for “bull”); each piece weighing approximately 90 pounds.  The ratio by weight of dried lean to tallow was generally between 1:1 and 2:3 (50:50 to 40:60).
For special occasions, and for European tastes, “saskatoon berries, cranberries, and even (for special occasions) cherries, currants, chokeberries or blueberries” were added. (5)  
Pemmican has a number of attributes recommending it both as a travel and survival food:
  • the tallow protects the lean meat from moisture and resulting decomposition, “shelf life” is said to be north of 20 years, without refrigeration
  • nutritional value of the lean meat is better preserved by drying, than by cooking or the use of salt curing
  • once made, no cooking, and hence no fire or cooking utensils, are required
  • few, as in two, ingredients; simple to make without specialized equipment
  • very high in calories per unit of weight; over 3,000 kcal in 16 oz. of the 40:60 mix
  • nutritionally complete
According to George Monroe Grant, D.D., L.L.D (1835-1902), as cited in Not By Bread Alone, by Vilhjalmur Steffansson, “A bag weighing a hundred pounds is only the size of an ordinary pillow, two feet long, one and a half wide, and six inches thick.  Such a bag then would supply three good meals to a hundred and thirty men.”
Again from Not By Bread Alone, “Rear Admiral Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920) is usually considered the greatest of modern Arctic explorers… ‘Too much cannot be said of the importance of pemmican to a polar expedition.  It is an absolute sine qua non.  Without it a sledge-party cannot compact its supplies within a limit of weight to make a serious polar expedition successful. … With pemmican, the most serious sledge journey can be undertaken and carried to a successful issue in the absence of all other foods.'”

Notes on Making Pemmican

Pemmican is an excellent nutrient-dense and energy-dense food. As you can see from its history, it is meant to be kept for long periods of time, at room temperature. This makes it one of the best possible sources of nutrition for traveling. It is also quite easy to prepare yourself making it very affordable too.

John and I chose to use ground venison for the “lean” in our Pemmican because we decided it would be more similar to the traditional buffalo meat. It was also venison that John had hunted himself, so it aligned more with the traditional lifestyle of living off the land. However, you can certainly use ground beef for the “lean” if you don’t have access to venison.

We made two different versions of the Pemmican as an experiment to see which we would like more. The first version was a 50% lean to 50% fat ratio. For the second version, we tried a higher fat ratio and added dried blueberries, similar to what was traditionally done for a “holiday” Pemmican. The second version resulted in a 40% lean to 56% fat ratio with 4% blueberries (by weight). 

If you enjoy this recipe, please check out some of my other real food recipes!

Pemmican Recipe

(AIP, Paleo, GAPS, SCD, Whole30, Dairy-Free, Egg-Free, Gluten-Free, Nut-Free)

Prep time:   24 hours (dehydrating time) + 30 minutes (hands-on)


50% lean : 50% fat

40% lean : 56% fat : 4% blueberries

Makes approx: 32 oz or 2.0 lbs of pemmican = 6,137 kcal

Makes approx: 49 oz or 3.0 lbs of pemmican =  9,821 kcal

  • 48 oz ground venison, raw (16 oz dried)
  • 16 oz beef tallow, melted
  • 64 oz ground venison, raw (19.5 oz dried)
  • 27.25 oz beef tallow, melted
  • 2 oz dried blueberries
beef tallow for pemmican
measuring beef tallow by weight
dried venison in food processor
dried venison in food processor


50% lean : 50% fat

40% lean : 56% fat : 4% blueberries

Using a dehydrator, John dried the ground venison for approximately 24 hours.

We measured the dry weight of the venison to calculate how much tallow to use by weight for a 50% lean, 50% fat ratio.

While the tallow melted in a saucepan on the stove, we used a food processor to grind the dried venison to a near-powder.

We added the dried venison to a large metal mixing bowl.

We slowly mixed in the melted tallow, making sure to evenly coat all of the dry components.

We continued to stir for another 15 minutes while the mixture cooled to keep the fat from separating.

Then we spooned the mixture into 2 pint-sized mason jars and sealed them.

Using a dehydrator, John dried the ground venison for approximately 24 hours.

We measured the dry weight of the venison to calculate how much tallow to use by weight for a 40% lean, 56% fat ratio.

While the tallow melted in a saucepan on the stove, we used a food processor to finely grind the dried venison to a powder.

We added the dried venison to a large metal mixing bowl with the dried blueberries. 

We slowly mixed in the melted tallow, making sure to evenly coat all of the dry components.

We continued to stir for another 15 minutes while the mixture cooled to keep the fat from separating.

Then we spooned the mixture into 3 pint-sized mason jars and sealed them.

pemmican in food processor
grinding the dried venison to powder in food processor
mixing the melted beef tallow into the ground venison powder

Nutrition Information:

50% lean : 50% fat

40% lean : 56% fat : 4% blueberries

Macronutrient Ratios: 

80.7% fat, 19.3% protein, 0% carbs

Macronutrient Ratios: 

82.7% fat, 16.1% protein, 1.2% carbs

*Note that the Nutrition Facts labels use rounded numbers. The macronutrients were calculated by what was actually used, not based on the rounded numbers of the label.

Pemmican staging
staging the glass jars for storing the pemmican
pemmican into jars
spooning pemmican into glass jars

The end of my week with John & Geri didn’t feel like an ending at all. It felt like the beginning. The beginning of an inspiring friendship, collaboration, and source of joy in my life.  Finding my tribe along the road and in my travels has been the most joyous and fulfilling aspect. I continue to be blessed and overwhelmed with generosity and authentic connections. This was no different with John & Geri. 

Community is such an under-appreciated part of health and I’m grateful to have good people like John & Geri in mine, and I in theirs. I greatly look forward to when our travels bring us together again. And who knows, maybe I’ll even find myself tapping Michigan maple trees in the near future 😉 

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments, I love hearing from you! Spread the Love and share this post with someone!

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Disclaimer: The information in this post is not intended as medical advice, or to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional. Marcelle encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research, and in partnership with your doctor, licensed dietitian, or nutritionist. The information provided in this post and the entire contents of are based upon the opinions of Marcelle Phene and are for general educational purposes, and have not been reviewed nor approved by the FDA. You are solely responsible for your health care and activity choices.

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  1. John Newell says:

    I love, love, LOVE your post. Great intro 😉 The feelings are mutual as I think I have made abundantly clear. I hope we will see you again at Pale f(x) in April ’19, and if not, during maple season even early, Feb-Mar ’19. All the best, and again, super job on the post, John

    • mphene says:

      Thank you so much, John! I absolutely loved collaborating with you on this project and look forward to many more collaborations in the future! I definitely look forward to seeing you and Geri again soon, one place or another! Travel and route plans still unfolding for the spring 😉

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